Developing Concern for Others
A few days ago, one of my students who has a 3-year-old daughter came to me with the following story:

“I got a very disturbing report from my daughter’s teacher the other day. She said Megan (her daughter) had an unusually large number of ’accidents’ that hurt another child—she might ride her tricycle roughly into a group, or walk by and knock down a block structure some other kids had built. Then if the teacher tries to talk to Megan about it, she just says it was an accident. She doesn’t seem to show any remorse even if another child is hurt. She’s sort of that way at home with her 1-year-old sister, but I always thought it was just ordinary sibling rivalry and didn’t pay much attention to it. Now I’m beginning to wonder. What do you think?”

I told her I thought that Megan’s behavior was not too unusual, that many 3-year-olds paid little attention to the effects of their actions on other people. Even so, it is important to encourage concern for others, as it is the foundation for all peaceful and enjoyable social relationships. For many years now, parents and teachers have been encouraged to help children develop a healthy “self”-concept. It is possible that those efforts have resulted sometimes in the development of correspondingly weak “other” concepts.

Children below 5 or 6 years of age have difficulty grasping the idea that the world can be seen in any way other than the way they see it. Let me illustrate that with a famous experiment done some years ago by the famous Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. He showed very young children two cones representing mountains that looked rather like this:

After looking at the “mountains” for a time, the children were asked to arrange them the way they would look if the child was standing behind them instead of in front of them. Most adults and children older than 6 or 7 generally have no trouble doing this correctly—they put the tall mountain on the right and the small one on the left. But not most preschoolers. They tended to set the cones up just as they are on this sheet, with the large one on the left. It was as though they simply couldn’t imagine that the mountains could look any way other than the way they looked from the child’s present vantage point. Put another way, they couldn’t imagine themselves to be somewhere they weren’t and thus assumed that mountains would look no different from the other side. So my first point is that being able to recognize how others see and think and feel is difficult until a child can, symbolically speaking, put himself or herself in another person’s shoes—or at least sit or stand in the other person’s position.

How Can We Encourage the Development of an “Other” Concept?
It’s not an easy, all-at-once accomplishment. But there are at least three types of action that can help.

1. Make sure the child’s own needs are met.
Sometimes children show little concern for others because their own needs for love and appreciation are not met within the family. This lack can lead to children’s on-going continuous struggle to take care of their own needs. They sometimes develop an unverbalized attitude of “I’ve got to look after myself because nobody else is going to.” If that attitude drives a child’s behavior in child care, what does it matter if another child gets hurt in the process. “That’s life, kid,” the aggressor might think.

2. Model the behavior you want to encourage.
In order for your child to show concern for others, you’ve got to show it in your own behavior. If your child “accidentally-on-purpose” hurts another child while playing, devote most of your attention to the hurt child and ignore the culprit for a time. “Oh, Jack, I know it hurt where that block hit you. Think I should put a band-aid on it?” Your child will watch this episode and, with or without an acknowledgement, take it all in. After you have applied the band-aid, you can say to your child, “I’m sure you want to tell Jack you’re sorry you hit him. If you don’t, he might not want to play with you again.” Later, when this particular episode has been temporarily forgotten, talk about how it hurts to be hit, knocked down, etc. Ask whether your child has ever had that happen to him/her and then say, “How did it feel when Jason kicked you?” If you child denies that it hurt, comment, “Well, most kids think it really hurts, and they don’t like it.”

This sort of modeling also applies to broader aspects of family life. “Heidi is sick and needs to sleep, so we’ll need to be fairly quiet today. You skip listening to your tapes, and I won’t run the vacuum cleaner.” “Daddy’s birthday is next week. Shall we get him some of those chocolates he especially likes?” Do everything you can to get your child thinking about how other people feel.

3. Let great and timeless ideas help.
I know of no major religion that doesn’t advocate some version of the Golden Rule, which is basically what we’re talking about here. The earliest may well have been Confucius, who, over 2500 years ago, put it in a negative format that little children can understand: Don’t treat others the way you don’t want to be treated. The positive version, with which we are more familiar—treat others the way you want to be treated—comes harder for little children. Developing concern for others is a hard task in a highly competitive society—and no one would disagree that ours is one. Of course, competition can be a good thing in motivating all of us to do our best. But we have to balance it with what we might call a social conscience, which literally means putting concern for others close to the top of a hierarchy of social goals and social behavior.

I think the modern innovation of having the birthday child give a gift to all the children at the party is wonderful. At a Montessori kindergarten I visited recently, the birthday child, whose mother had already brought cup cakes for all the children, walked around the circle, stopping in front of each child one at a time. While there she said “something nice” or mentioned something she liked about each child, repeating herself frequently but leaving out no one. This is an example of showing concern for others, even on the day when you are the most special person.

If I were to summarize my message to Sheila and to all the other mothers who think their young children don’t show enough concern for others, it would be: don’t worry too much about it when they are very young. Like judgment and all kinds of knowledge, it is to some extent developmental. It improves with an increasingly clear understanding of the consequences of one’s actions. But it doesn’t “just happen.” You have to help it along by meeting the child’s needs and by modeling behavior that demonstrates concern for others. Don’t hesitate to borrow support from the great religious thinkers of history.

When we learn to treat others the way we want to be treated, life is much more pleasant for everyone.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education